President Trump and the spies who didn’t love me

Michael Goldhaber, IBA US Correspondent

In February, President Trump authorised the release of a controversial memo by the Republican House Intelligence Committee chair Devin Nunes. The memo attacked the FBI for allegedly relying mainly and surreptitiously on Democrat-funded private intelligence to set in motion the Russia investigation.

The President also tried, unsuccessfully, to block the release of the House Democrats’ rebuttal stating that the FBI disclosed the partisan source of its information, and had significant independent bases for suspicion.

The White House released the Nunes Memo despite ‘grave concerns’ expressed by the FBI about its accuracy and a letter from the Assistant Attorney General for Legislative Affairs warning that its publication might be ‘extraordinarily reckless’ for national security. Nunes accused the FBI of improperly obtaining a wiretap order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court for the Trump campaign aide Carter Page (who has been indicted by the special counsel).

We are seeing an effort by the White House and its allies in Congress to discredit the Mueller investigation, and to smear the characters of individuals in the Bureau, which is specifically intended to undermine the rule of law

Frank Montoya, Former FBI Director of National Counterintelligence

‘We are seeing an effort by the White House and its allies in Congress to discredit the Mueller investigation, and to smear the characters of individuals in the Bureau, which is specifically intended to undermine the rule of law and public trust in the institutions of law enforcement,’ says the former FBI Director of National Counterintelligence Frank Montoya. ‘It’s about weaponising public opinion against a legitimate investigation. Public trust is being battered.’

Since the firing of FBI Director James Comey last spring, the White House and its allies have targeted three senior FBI officials for criticism. Deputy Director Andrew McCabe has been attacked for partisan bias based on his wife’s failed run for the Virginia State Senate as a Democrat. Chief of Staff James Rybicki and General Counsel James A Baker were accused of leaking confidential information.

These are the three men in whom Comey confided that the President was pressuring him to drop the investigation of then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. In the last three months, the FBI has announced McCabe and Rybicki’s departures, as well as Baker’s demotion. Critics of President Trump say that he hounded Comey’s inner circle out of their positions of power.

Montoya, who left the FBI shortly before the 2016 election, rejects the notion that the Bureau’s choice to probe Page’s Russian connections was politically motivated.

‘When the FBI opens up counterintelligence investigations we're not looking from a political perspective,’ says Montoya. ‘We don't care if it was a Democrat, Republican or Satanist. The only question is: “Did a US person act as the agent of a foreign power to conduct clandestine intelligence activities.” I base my assessment on being in room for some of these decisions, and on hundreds of FISA court applications,’ for foreign intelligence wiretaps.

This new idea that the FBI is a Democratic hotbed is ‘nonsense', says Montoya. ‘Do people inside the FBI have personal opinion? Yes. Some like Trump; some don't.’ In any event, he says, ‘hating the President is not treason. It's not even close to a crime.’

Rebecca Roiphe, a Professor at New York Law School who studies prosecutorial independence, agrees. ‘The idea that everything is politically motivated and therefore illegitimate essentially erases the whole notion that there is an independent arm of law enforcement,’ she says. ‘The whole attitude towards the DOJ and the FBI in this administration has undermined the principle of independence.’ 

Marc Ruskin spent 27 years in the FBI, ending as a unit chief under Mueller, as documented in his memoir, The Pretender: My Life Undercover for the FBI. While echoing Montoya’s sentiments about partisan independence, he concedes that Comey strayed from the ideal – first in one direction and then the other – in a misguided attempt to respond to shifting circumstances in Hillary Clinton’s email probe.

‘In order for democracy to function effectively, national law enforcement has to function free of political influence,’ Ruskin advises. ‘Comey was attacked from both the left and the right… which shows just how sensitive and difficult a path he needed to tread. The only way for the FBI to avoid being attacked is to maintain strict neutrality and objectivity, and that starts at the top. Comey, whatever his best intentions, did not successfully tread that narrow path. Mueller did. A lot rests on the shoulders of the current director of the FBI, Christopher Wray, and his ability to maintain the neutrality and objectivity of the Bureau.’